How Facebook turned into Australia’s most influential news source
It was a regular day in the middle of February when people in Australia noticed a significant change when checking their Facebook page ‒ there was no news on their feed.
It seemed sudden that Facebook decided to restrict Australian citizen’s usage by preventing them from posting or reading the news when browsing the site. This, however, was the company’s response to a proposed law, which would consequently enforce payment from tech giants for this type of content.
It is a fact that most people choose Facebook when they want to read any form of news and it has been that way for a while now. Even though the company is rather young compared to others, Facebook’s influence on newsrooms’ decision-making has made some depict it as “the absent editor in the room”.
To answer some pressing questions, we must know what led to Facebook becoming one of the biggest sources of news worldwide.
Facebook was the Number 1 news source in Australia
It is undeniable that Facebook is currently one of the most (or even the most) influential social networks for most individuals who are interested in the news. As stated by Reuters Institute, up to 40% of Australians relied on it for their news between the years of 2018 and 2020, which means Facebook became the country’s most well-known social media and messaging platform for news.
Nevertheless, worries about the tech firms’ supremacy in the media field have been present as well.
Back in 2018, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission instigated research regarding Google and Facebook’s influence on competition in media and advertising. The ACCC’s analysis concluded that the big tech companies obtained the largest share of revenue and profits in media. To be more specific, of every A$100 (£56; $77) spent on digital ads in the media in Australia lately, A$81 goes to Google and Facebook.
Additionally, the ACCC claimed that considering the lack of balance between tech giants and the media, a code of conduct ought to be implemented to achieve the desired balance. A draft of the code has already been produced and it requires that tech companies pay for news content, but it does not specify how much. The code would allow news firms to negotiate with the tech ones over how the news shows up in the “feed” and “search” pages as well. The government maintains that tech companies shоuld be paying news businesses a “fair” amount for their content. The reason it provided was that the news industry is facing many difficulties at the moment and therefore a strong media is extremely significant in terms of democracy. Yet Facebook refused to accept any legislation that enforced payment and the reasons for it. Google, on the other hand, signed multimillion-dollar contracts with three of the main Australian news providers.
Is balance achievable?
It is more than apparent that we look for the news on Facebook, however, its relationship with news reporters goes both ways. The company insists that the media gains from the relations more than the platform does.
William Easton, who is Facebook’s local managing director, finds that “Publishers willingly choose to post news on Facebook, as it allows them to sell more subscriptions, grow their audiences and increase advertising revenue.” He also shared that Facebook reached five billion referrals to Australian news providers, which should equal around A$400m.
It is important to remember that reading news is one of the main reasons why we go on social media, as established by Reuters, and Facebook is the largest social platform for finding news. Newsrooms cannot be expected to simply overlook this whole group of potential readers. In the meantime, some journalists claim that the social media site has eagerly stimulated news sites to provide workshops for reporters and even editors regarding an improved use of Facebook. Nevertheless, it quickly became evident that there was a problem relating to transparency. Facebook kept altering its software without letting the news companies know. It made modifications to its News Feed algorithm, which pushed some posts back to make it harder for people to reach them (an editor called that “throttling” the news feed). Facebook was essentially the absent editor in the room that could impose editorial reforms instantaneously.
‘‘The goalposts kept shifting’’
Isabelle Oderberg, who used to be a social media editor for News Corp Australia, informed BBC News that “The algorithmic changes were made with no pre-warning, no insights and no reasoning… [it] was incredibly frustrating.” She added that “It affected our traffic and it was just mostly really upsetting. The social media community would [they have to] wait for Facebook to [explain] the change, though they didn’t always explain it. It’s always been clear what the power balance was.”
The BBC had discussions with three other reporters from various local media institutions, who wish to remain unnamed.
One radio journalist from a big Australian outlet shared with the BBC that, to them, it seemed like the “goalposts kept shifting” ‒ priorities would be switched up every year or every two years to correspond better to what the best for Facebook is. They stated that “Overall, a massive issue lies in the extent to which media organizations entangled themselves willingly with the Facebook algorithm and began to measure their success via Facebook.”
All of the three reporters indicated that there was a shift in the newsroom when Facebook chose to show videos on top of the users’ feed to popularize them. The outcome was that a bunch of video producers was employed, or current journalists were hurried into skills training.
All this was combined with the existing need for digital producers who were capable of coming up with ‘‘clicky’’ titles for online stories and social media posts. The radio journalist mentioned that “We were told audio stories wouldn’t work [on social] so you needed to write up the content in a digital article for it to be shared, but then suddenly it needed to be a video. And it felt sometimes like it didn’t matter ‒ the quality or nature of what you were getting at, [or whether it] was a good story ‒ if it wasn’t suited to the algorithm.”
‘‘No longer king of the hill’’
Unease regarding the fate and prospects of the field has been observed by professionals outside the newsroom as well. Rasmus Nielsen is a director at Oxford University’s Reuters Institute and he informed the BBC that the contrast between credible sources and gossip is being blurred by Facebook’s “feed”. However, there are also some advantages. Mr. Nielsen believes that Facebook has established a platform for more individuals to reach the news, regardless of whether they are looking for it intentionally or not. It has additionally constructed a news climate, which is more representative of societies that have been “roundly and routinely ignored by established media”, according to the director.
Research by the Oxford University’s Reuters Institute concluded that about 50% of internet users do not intentionally look for news content in their everyday life. Mr. Nielsen finds that the media field has not accepted that yet.
Therefore, the goal is to figure out how to interest, inform and provide useful content for consumers. “What does it mean when you’re no longer king of the hill with a structured, privileged access to people’s attention, but actually have to fight for it in the trenches with lots of other things that people apparently find more compelling and useful than what they see in journalism?”